Requiem for TQM or Total Quality Mismanagement

I promised Jon at Gemba and that I would relate my experience with the TQM fad of the 1990’s. Do not misconstrue the intent of this article. I was an adherent of the TQM concept. People often wonder why older managers like myself seem to be skeptical and gun shy of every new program that comes down the pike. Perhaps this writing will answer those questions.

The story takes place at the height of the popularity with TQM (Total Quality Management) back in the 1990’s. For those that don’t remember TQM, it was a grass roots program designed to analyze processes with an eye toward improving them. The overall goal was “zero defects” through continuous improvement. It required the steadfast support and commitment of top management that would ultimately result in a cultural change in the organization.

I was working as a division operations manager for a multi-million dollar nationwide corporation. At the time, we were having very serious problems with a new line of capital equipment that had just been introduced into the market. Everyone was perplexed about what could be creating these issues. These were very high profile problems and our customers were not happy. There was even talk of a quarantine and boycott of the product.

Our company was an extremely conservative firm, led by an equally conservative CEO. He was an old money, East Coast, Ivy League educated, very academically orientated, well-read and highly opinionated hard line executive. He was extremely vocal about his views and could always be expected to be exceptionally blunt when discussing something he didn’t like or disagreed with. There was even talk that the company had resorted to hiring a PR firm to carefully edit his speeches and press releases. I always thought he was kind of refreshing.

The pressure from the customers must have been overwhelming. The search was on for an answer and it could no longer be “we’re working on it.” We all got the memo that announced our foray into the world of TQM. Our customers had embraced it and so would our company. In hindsight, launching into TQM was not necessarily the answer to the particular quality issue at hand. In fact, the problem was corrected through a combined team of engineers and even scientists brought in by the company in consort with our customers. Unfortunately, this occurred while we were in still in the stages of TQM implementation. I believe that finding the solution to that particular problem before the full TQM program was in place served only to hasten its demise even sooner than it would have happened on its own.

The company spared no expense getting us on fast track to TQM. They picked one of the more expensive TQM program providers and flew us all over country. I was chosen to be an instructor because I managed a large region and my operations were far flung. I picked our division HR manager as my assistant. Ron and I were great friends. He operated out of corporate headquarters and his boss, the Vice President of Human Resources wanted tabs kept on the progress of the program in the field. Being stationed at corporate headquarters afforded Ron a bird’s eye view into what was going on at the senior staff level as well as with the CEO.

Ron and I attended the instructors’ training modules together. It was during one of the early orientation sessions that he made an off-handed comment to me about how the CEO didn’t really believe in any of it and had been forced into TQM by the customers. Knowing the CEO as I did, I knew we were in trouble right out of the gate.

I will admit that I was skeptical about the TQM concept from the outset. How could such a culture change take place at an extremely conservative firm like ours? I did not like the gimmicky “Fru-Fru” (you know –the silly exercises, role playing, campaign buttons, etc.) that was associated with the training. I’ve never liked that stuff. I really didn’t think that TQM would work in our kind of operations either. But I was committed to learning the methods and as long as I was chosen to be an instructor, I dug into the materials like I would study for any other academic course. It took me a while to intellectualize the concepts but over a cocktail one night at the program sponsored “happy hour”, it clicked. The whole thing was unbelievably simple. It made sense logically and I felt that the concepts could be easily communicated to the employees – with or without the “Fru-Fru.” I actually began believe that this could work. I even transferred some of the methodology to my personal life. I still use some of it today.

We got down to the business of setting up training at the division level in accordance with the schedule and format set out by the program. It was a step-by-step process that rolled out in a series of stages. But while we in the field were diligently at work laying the groundwork, things were already going awry at corporate headquarters. Part of the implementation protocol required a show of support by top management. This included a visit by one of the TQM program consultants to meet with CEO. Ron informed me that the CEO had refused to meet with them. After a plethora of pleadings by the consultants, he relented but had assigned the whole program to a lower level vice president.

The next step in the process was the big corporate “kick off” meeting at headquarters. All the divisional managers were flown for the hoopla. It was a topnotch affair attended by a few hundred people including the entire corporate office staff. The CEO even gave the keynote address. He voiced his support for the program but one could tell that his conviction was lukewarm at best. Two of his comments were telling: “…I hope that no one thinks that we’re getting into this program because I happened to pick up Business Week and read an article about it. We need this.” and his final comment with which we were sent off to go and do TQM, “I really want this program to work but I don’t want people wasting their time attending a lot of meetings.”

Interestingly enough, although a grass roots program, the events were always confined to corporate headquarters and never found there way down to the production worker level. Everything that occurred at our company was always centered on corporate headquarters. That’s where the CEO and the power base were located. Everything revolved around them. Even though the production facilities were the areas deemed as needing the program, only their top managers were called into headquarters to participate. Production workers only read about it in the company newsletters.

Over the next twelve months, the program peaked and then began to degenerate as the novelty wore off and company priorities began to change. The training schedules, formats, and overall protocol that the program consultants had laid out began to be modified and reprioritized by corporate officials. I will list several of those items here. If you were familiar with some of the doctrines and methods employed TQM that were popular back then, perhaps you’ll recall some of these:

OFI’s (Opportunities for Improvement)
These were to be grassroots ideas for improving the processes performed by the employees themselves, i.e. “If my area had better lighting, I could more easily…. and the work that I pass on work would contain less defects.” “If the parts were degreased before I got them, I could….” “If I had a different tool, I could….” You get the picture. The intent was to improve the process. Although each OFI was to be put to writing and catalogued, they were not intended to be suggestion box items. The program was also explicit about the fact that no financial incentives be attached. The improvement of the process was to be its own reward. Operating the process would become easier with less rework, etc.
What went wrong:
1. One of the corporate AVP’s, who had only attended an “Executive Summary” session had latched to the notion that each OFI should show a direct link to a product improvement. He resurrected an old idea that had been suggested by a field employee for modifying an ancillary device on a finished piece of equipment. The suggestion had nothing to do with employee’s process and was based on a simple observation. The AVP decided that this example should be used as the model for all OFI’s. He also suggested that the employee be given a cash reward for the idea. Since he was an AVP, his position power trumped the intent of the program.
2. When we were initiated into the OFI process at our training sessions, the program consultants stressed that American workers were not as keen as Japanese or even European workers when it came to writing OFI’s. Americans were more apt to just “fix” things as opposed to committing their ideas to writing. The consultants showed statistics of the propensity of various groups to create written OFI documents. We were even told not to expect too many at first. That is indeed what occurred. This initial paucity of OFI’s was deemed unacceptable by our corporate management. Our workers were better than the Japanese or Europeans and, therefore, should turn in even more OFI’s. Besides, the company had just made a considerable monetary investment in TQM training and, by God; they wanted to see something for it. The entire OFI program deteriorated into a numbers game and a contest. You can guess the rest. If you can’t imagine the undue pressure placed on line management, the nonproductive shenanigans, infighting and poor morale that resulted, I can write an entire post about them.

Commitment through training
Training was the backbone of the program. If one did not understand the doctrines of TQM, there was no way that a culture change could occur within the organization. Let’s face it. There are a lot of people like me out there who really need to intellectualize the nuts and bolts of something before we “buy into” it.
What went wrong:
1. The key corporate executives only participated in the “executive summary” overview session (held at a resort in Florida). Some did not even consider it worthwhile to attend.
2. Due to the CEO’s statement about “too many meetings”, corporate employees received mandatory but abridged training. They did get all of the “Fru-Fru.”
3. Plant and field employees received more intensive training at first but then it began to taper off as the business cycle picked up and production demands took priority.
4. After the first year of the program, all continuing education had ceased.

Program review benchmarks
One of the protocols of the TQM program that our company had chosen was to hold benchmarking events at various stages of the implementation to review what had been learned to date and take stock of progress. There were to be a series of these events scheduled to build upon each other and culminate in the recognition of the culture change.
What went wrong:
1. We could not have these events in the field due to scheduling and budgetary concerns. Our larger operations were only able to squeeze in one or two.
2. Corporate headquarters, of course, held a massive affair combining several of the benchmarking events into one. Sparing no expense, a hotel ballroom was transformed into a genuine three-ring circus arena complete with clowns, prize booths and even a dunk tank. The office staff was dressed in “zero defect” tee shirts and played ring toss games to win giant yardsticks for “measurement.” Banners and balloons carried the words “All work is a Process” and “Quality is Free.” The tab for all of it sure couldn’t have been. The food was great. But other than for the fun and games, no one really seemed to know why they were there. It was all kind of surreal.
3. I went back to the corporate office after the event and visited the accounting department where I had spent many years before moving into operations. The walls were covered with charts and graphs. I asked one of the supervisors what it was all about. “Measurement!” he answered. “But what are you measuring?” I asked. “Everything!” he answered, “The Controller told us to put up as many charts and graphs as we could.”
4. Reading about the event in company newsletter and seeing the pictures of the gala demoralized the production workers.

Three years later it was all over. The company received a spiffy “Quality Statement” like all large corporations have today. New employees received a booklet describing the TQM process that they were to memorize. They might also have been shown a videotape. The OFI process had stopped (thank God). The entire administration of the TQM program had been remanded to the Quality Assurance Department. Their focus went back inspecting finished goods and reviewing production processes. The relationship with original program consultants reverted to receiving a monthly newsletter. Nothing else changed.

The banners were sagging on the walls and the balloons were all but deflated and hanging limp, sad reminders of an extremely expensive foray into the TQM fad of the ‘90’s.
I always thought that the following words should have been inscribed headstone of the program:

RIP TQM
Enacted for the wrong reasons. Afforded only lip service support by a disinterested top management. Continuously modified by ill-informed senior officials.

My experience with this program at that company can be summed up simply. It turned me from a skeptic into a believer and then into a cynic.

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3 Responses to “Requiem for TQM or Total Quality Mismanagement”

  1. Kent Blumberg Says:

    A useful case study for all of us. Shows the power of disinterested, or actively antagonistic top leadership.

  2. Jon Miller Says:

    This is a great story, well told. Although there is no happy ending, it can serve as a warning and as a case study in mistakes to avoid in corporate improvement efforts. Thanks Jerome.

  3. It turned me from a skeptic into a believer and then into a cynic. | Mark McClure Today Says:

    […] realities created by a poorly implemented “major corporate initiative” of the 1990s – Total Quality Mismanagement, as he aptly titles it. We’ve probably all been through this kind of train wreck – 20 degrees […]

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